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0 French army: the talk

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  • 01-05-2020
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No, the French army is not so bad!
Some British and Americans question the role of the French army in world conflicts. An English historian re-establishes the truth.

When it comes to commemorating the terrible events of 1917, which were among the deadliest of the First World War, it is understandable that the British focus their attention on the battle of Passchendaele, while the Americans, themselves, put forward their entry into war against Germany. Unfortunately, these commemorations are often accompanied by a deplorable setback, which consists in denigrating the courage and skills of their French allies.

In a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, which journalist Jonah Goldberg helped popularize in one of his articles in 1999, the French are even called "cowardly cheese eaters". One way to suggest, among other things, that the French abandoned Paris to the Germans in 1940 without even firing a shot. Obviously, this spade was intended to be satirical, but the damage was done, as we discovered in 2003; as proof of this, the invective addressed to the French by American and British politicians and the media following France's decision (however a wise decision, with hindsight) not to support military intervention in Iraq . If the Americans and the British want to take history seriously, they must be fair to the feats of arms of the French.

A little honesty
From August 1914 to early 1917, it was the French army that paid the price for the fighting on the Western Front - and this, with remarkable stoicism. In the space of two weeks - between August 16 and August 31, 1914 - there were 210,993 deaths on the French side. By comparison, the British lost 164,709 men in the first month of the Somme offensive in July 1916.

The French army has also adapted very effectively to the challenges of trench warfare by perfecting its technique in barrage fire. She was also a pioneer in terms of tactics for the infantry platoon, with the development of new automatic weapons and rifle grenades. While the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, was a disaster for the English, the French achieved all objectives.

At the beginning of 1917, 68 French divisions were the crucible of mutinies. But the soldiers involved in these mutinies continued to defend their trenches, simply refusing to go to the pipe-breaker. The army rose brilliantly, playing a central role in the Allied victory of 1918. From July to November 1918, French troops captured 139,000 German prisoners. In the same interval, the American Expeditionary Force captured 44,142 Germans.

Stop clichés
During the interwar period, the French invested in defensive fortifications, with the Maginot Line, along the Franco-German border. This decision has often been ridiculed on the pretext that it revealed a defeatist attitude. But, France being less populated than Germany, she could not hope to compete with her only army. The fortifications had to compensate for this imbalance. The Maginot line aimed to protect the industrial heart of France from a lightning attack from the Germans and to create a funnel in Belgium to slow down the German invasion, and, at first, it worked.

But the German army won the campaign of May and June 1940 thanks to its daring "sickle stroke" in the forest of the Ardennes, which was considered impassable by the Allied commanders. The British, French and Belgian armies were surrounded to the north, suffering a heavy defeat. French strategic planning is largely responsible for this catastrophe, but let's not forget that it was an Allied defeat, not just a French defeat. The Dutch and the Belgians being reluctant to risk their neutrality, there was little coordination with them, which facilitated the German attack. As for the British, they let France pay the price of the land war without giving it much support.

The British Expeditionary Force in 1940 represented only 12 divisions. By 1918, there had been as many as 59. So it was not surprising that Nazi propaganda used to taunt its enemies by claiming that the British were "determined to fight until the death of the last French ”.

The “miracle” of Dunkirk
Although their generals were surpassed in 1940, the French troops fought with courage and skill. For example, during the battle of Gembloux - from May 14 to 15, 1940 -, the first French army succeeded in repelling the German assaults on numerous occasions, saving time so that their comrades and their allies could withdraw. Without such rearguard actions, there would have been no "Dunkirk miracle" and the war could have been lost in 1940.

After crossing the Meuse, the German divisions of Panzer only had to travel 240 km towards the Channel coast to trap the Allied forces - 1.8 million French soldiers were captured and 90,000 were killed or wounded.

At the start of Operation Barbarossa - the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 - the Red Army lost nearly 5 million men, including 2.5 million who surrendered. The Russians also lost 100,000 square kilometers of territory. However, as Charles de Gaulle told Stalin after this terrible defeat, the Soviets still had vast territory in Eurasia, where they could retreat. The French did not lack courage in 1940, they lacked space.

Contribution to the liberation of Europe
The French military contribution to the Allied victory during the Second World War continued after 1940. Indeed, 550,000 French soldiers made a major contribution to the liberation of Western Europe in 1944. Operation Dragoon - the landing in Provence in August 1944 - was a Franco-American operation, with limited participation from Great Britain.

Many French soldiers involved in Operation Dragoon were recruited from the colonies, as well as from the British side, since 2.6 million Indian soldiers were involved in the war effort. In any event, the French units which served in Italy and in Western Europe between 1943 and 1945 fought bravely, in the best tradition of the French army.


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